The #metoo movement hit Edinburgh with numerous festival shows documenting this social earthquake, says Joyce McMillan.
It’s a grey Wednesday afternoon in the middle of the Fringe, and I am sitting in a dank cave of a space in the Underbelly at Cowgate, watching a show mainly set in Rome 400 years ago. There’s nothing gloomy about the performance, though; for on stage are three brilliant, vibrant, angry young women from a company called Breach Theatre, telling a story that echoes down the centuries to this moment.
Their subject is the court case in which the superb 17th century painter Artemisia Gentileschi, then aged 17, raised a complaint of rape against a friend of her father’s who had stalked her, spread vile rumours about her character when she refused him, and finally raped her in her own home; the echoes of the experience of contemporary rape victims are profound, and brilliantly brought to life. And this is just one among half a dozen shows I have seen on this year’s Fringe that deal directly with an experience of rape or sexual assault; and almost 30 – from my own reviewing list alone – that deal with some aspect of the abuse of patriarchal power, from domestic violence to the lethal nexus between macho politics and personal cruelty.
For the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe, in other words, 2018 has been the year of #metoo, with an earthquake of change in attitudes to once-tolerated male behaviour sweeping through venue after venue, in shows factual and fictional, contemporary and historic; and ranging from brilliant new stories like the experience of a young black London girl stunningly conjured up in Power Play: Funeral Flowers, set in a Broughton Street flat, to Guy Masterson and Vicki McKellar’s edge-of-the-seat reconstruction of how, in the hours after her body was found, Marilyn Monroe’s sudden death in the summer of 1962 was reframed as the suicide of a confused and distraught woman, when in fact it is now almost certain that much more sinister forces were in play against a woman who had threatened to blow the lid off a world of high-powered sexual hypocrisy in show business and politics.
So what can we learn, from this avalanche of shows, about how the #metoo movement has evolved and is evolving, since that moment just 10 months ago when the major wave of allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein finally broke? The first is that women are angry, and that middle-class women, in particular, are now losing the self-blame traditionally carried by victims of sexual abuse, and feeling empowered to speak out about it, as never before.
The second is that although a majority of victims of bullying and violent male behaviour are women, the culture of patriarchal power also bears down heavily on gay men and on trans people. Some of the most painful scenes of domestic or street violence on the Fringe come in shows like the international Festival’s End Of Eddy, which portrays the relentless bullying of a young gay boy in a village in northern France, or in the genial setting of Nigel Slater’s Toast, at the Traverse, in which Nigel’s businessman dad beats and kicks him relentlessly when he first begins to suspect that his son is gay.
The third is that while many of the women who have led the #metoo movement have been wealthy, white and privileged, issues of sexual violence and exploitation intersect with issues of class, race and economic power in ways that we ignore at our peril. The Abbey Theatre’s Class, at the Traverse, deals brilliantly with the mounting bewilderment and aggression of a working-class man who just cannot deal with his ex-wife’s growing sense of autonomy, on top of a lifetime of economic stress and humiliation. The End Of Eddy shows how the loss of industrial jobs in an economically depressed area only compounds the angry, resentful hyper-masculinity of the male culture there. And that in turn points to reasons for the growing success of politicians like Donald Trump, who suggest to those already bruised by history that they will at least restore what they see as the “natural order” of precedence between men and women, straight and gay people, whites and blacks.
And finally, in the deep texture of some of the shows – like Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair’s Square Go at Summerhall, which hilariously but brutally analyses how boys can be socialised into violence even in the primary school playground – we can begin to glimpse how deep this challenge to traditional models of masculinity goes, in redefining many of those models as “toxic”, and inviting intelligent and caring people to turn their backs on them. Some men react by noisily appropriating whole areas of female experience; others explore female perspectives on the world more gently, drawing on the long tradition of drag and transvestism in theatre. Generous, creative, egalitarian and non-violent models of how to “be a man” seem in short supply, or under threat from a new wave of licensed thuggishness; and some conservative theorists question whether our civilisation can actually survive this profound questioning of the patriarchal foundations on which it was built.
To which the only answer is that now that this wave of change has begun to roll, our civilisation will not survive if it does not adapt to this new challenge, renew its commitment to basic human rights for everyone, and embrace ideas of successful masculinity that do not involve constant florid displays of dominance and control. For what is clear, in the background of this debate, is that the clock is ticking, and that the brutal damage to our planet caused by an economic system driven by the same barren illusions of dominance – this time over the earth itself – may finish us all, if our civilisation does not start evolving at speed. It seems inevitable that changing attitudes to gender will be part of that evolution. And although such a profound shift in attitudes may be unsettling and enraging to many, this #metoo moment is perhaps our wake-up call to the fact that there is no way back to a conventional, patriarchal past that has become morally and practically unsustainable; and that we must embrace a different kind of future, or die.